Last Updated on August 9, 2023
Before moving to our new property, I used to forage for Miner’s lettuce out in wild spaces during the wet months here on the Central Coast of California. It is one of my favorite native greens after all! Fast forward to the first winter at our new homestead: imagine my glee to see an entire pasture full of Miner’s lettuce sprouting up after our first good rain – right in my backyard. Score!
Come learn all about Miner’s lettuce. This article will teach you how to identify and harvest (or forage for) Miner’s lettuce, as well as briefly explore its history and origins, nutritional value, and several ways you can use or eat it. Even if it’s not native and naturally-found in your area, you can grow Miner’s lettuce at home! This cold-hardy, low-maintenance green is a fantastic addition to your winter garden.
What is Miner’s Lettuce?
Miner’s Lettuce, botanically known as Claytonia perfoliata, is a nutritious and delicious wild edible green. One could argue that it’s more palatable than many cultivated greens! Claytonia is commonly consumed fresh in salads, though it can also be cooked. This annual herbaceous broadleaf plant grows primarily in winter or early spring, following a good bout of rainfall. It’s a rampant self-seeder and excellent edible ground cover.
The plant’s common name dates back to the mid-1800’s, when miners ate this Vitamin-C rich plant to help prevent scurvy during the California gold rush. It is sometimes referred to as ‘winter purslane’ or ‘Indian Lettuce’, and has been utilized by Indigenous peoples long before the gold rush era. It is also an important food source for native mourning doves, California quail, and other seed-eating birds. Our backyard chickens love to eat it too!
Where is Miner’s Lettuce native to?
Miner’s Lettuce is native to the Western United States and Canada. It grows naturally throughout Washington, Oregon, and California, with the exception of elevations above 6600 feet or low desert areas. It can be found from British Columbia down to Central America and east into Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and the Dakotas.
Though not native to these areas, Claytonia may also be found growing wild in Ohio, Georgia, New Hampshire, Cuba, Europe, New Zealand, Australia and many other parts of the world now. Due to it’s delicious and easy-going nature, this edible “weed” has been intentionally spread and naturalized far and wide.
Where does Miner’s Lettuce grow? (Where to forage for Miner’s lettuce)
Miner’s lettuce grows most readily in shady, cool, moist areas. In the West, it is especially common in riparian habitats, hillsides, or as an understory plant, growing as natural ground cover under trees in chaparrals, woodlands and forests. Though it’s made its way into agricultural lands, parks, vineyards and backyards too. It is often found growing in harmony with other wild winter greens like stinging nettle and chickweed.
The best time to forage for Miner’s lettuce is during the winter and early spring following rainfall, as it quickly dries up when hot weather arrives. Although it is an annual, Claytonia seeds will easily self-sow and return in favored locations year after year.
How to Identify Miner’s Lettuce
In mature form, Miner’s lettuce resembles mini lily pads, making the unique disc-like leaves easy to identify. The largest (secondary) leaves are round or slightly heart-shaped, completely encircling the stem with petite white to pale pink flowers in the center. The plant has numerous smaller and less round (primary) leaves present before the circular ones form. Young Claytonia appear as rosettes of narrow grass-like leaves, gradually growing wider ones as they mature. See the photos below of each stage.
Don’t confuse Miner’s lettuce with it’s lookalike – dollarweed! Unlike Claytonia, dollarweed grows clusters of small white flowers on separate stems from the leaves (rather than in the center of the leaf itself).
What does Miner’s lettuce taste like?
Miner’s lettuce is one of the most tasty wild edible greens you’ll ever try! It has a very mild, sweet and earthy flavor reminiscent of spinach. It is pleasantly crisp, juicy and succulent, and remains tender even when in flower. Older leaves may become bitter in warm summer weather before the plants fade away. All parts of Miner’s lettuce are edible, including the long stems, flowers, and roots (though the roots are not as tasty as the green parts).
Is Miner’s lettuce good for you?
Yes! Miner’s lettuce is highly nutritious. Loaded with vitamin C, it has been used for centuries to prevent and treat scurvy – a condition caused by poor nutrition and vitamin C deficiency. It also contains high levels of Vitamin A and a respectable amount of iron, calcium, fiber, protein and essential omega 3 fatty acids.
Like many leafy greens, it does contain oxalates (aka oxalic acid) – a naturally-occurring plant compound also found in beans, legumes, almonds, beets, potatoes, and soy products. Oxalates are considered mildly toxic because they bind to calcium and can increase the risk of kidney stones in some people. Therefore, it is recommended to consume Claytonia in moderation, especially for folks with kidney disease.
Medicinal uses for Claytonia
Miner’s lettuce has a soothing and cooling effect when used topically, akin to aloe vera gel. The leaves can be mashed to create a poultice to apply to burns, minor skin irritations, and inflamed or painful rheumatic joints. Indigenous peoples and herbalists have been known to juice Claytonia leaves as a gentle laxative, invigorating spring tonic, or diuretic.
Growing Miner’s Lettuce in the Garden
Miner’s lettuce is not the most well-known green among home gardeners, but it’s gaining popularity – and rightly so! It grows quickly, is frost-tolerant and low-maintenance, and can be harvested multiple times throughout the growing season, offering a nice steady supply of nutritious greens. Since Claytonia plants are fairly petite, it’s a good idea to plant many of them.
Keep in mind that Claytonia readily self-seeds. If you do not want volunteer plants to come back year after year, harvest the round leaves with flowers first (those will eventually produce seeds). Thankfully, the small tender seedlings are easy to remove if unwanted. On the other hand, allowing the small flowers to go to seed will ensure you’ll always have it around! In addition to formal garden bed spaces, you could scatter Miner’s lettuce seed in a shady damp area of your yard, allowing it to grow less tamed as an edible winter ground cover.
Ideal growing conditions
Miner’s lettuce is a cool-season crop. I’ve even seen it growing under snow! Claytonia requires consistently moist soil and protection from hot direct sun, growing mostly happily in shade to partial shade. Therefore, it can be planted below or next to taller crops that will offer protection. It isn’t picky about soil or fertilizer, though it thrives in loose soils best (sandy loam or peaty).
Scatter or direct-sow seeds about ¼” deep. Most seed packets will instruct you to thin seedlings to 4 to 6 inches apart, though Miner’s lettuce grows in a dense blanket in nature. You can also start Miner’s lettuce seeds indoors and transplant seedlings out. Unlike many common garden veggies, Claytonia prefers cool soil to germinate (50-60°F). In fact, germination rate greatly declines when soil temperatures climb over 65°F, so skip the seedling heat mat!
When to plant Claytonia
For a fall to winter harvest, sow Miner’s lettuce seeds in August in Northern climates, and in September to October in Southern climates. Claytonia will grow right through the winter in zones 6 through 9! To grow Miner’s lettuce in spring, sow seeds 4 to 6 weeks before your last frost date when the soil temperatures are around 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Seeds should germinate within 4 to 14 days.
How to Harvest Miner’s Lettuce
The best way to harvest miner’s lettuce is to pick individual leaves and stems, leaving the rosette and roots to continue to grow fresh new leaves for future harvests the same season. (That is, unless you’re done with it for the season). This is especially important when foraging for Miner’s lettuce in wild environments, since over-harvesting and/or taking the entire plant by the roots will prevent it from reseeding for the following year.
Remove a few leaves from each plant by pinching the base of the stem (don’t pull) down near the soil. Always leave behind a handful of leaves on each plant so it can continue to photosynthesize and grow. Come back and harvest more soon. Remember, the leaves, stems, and flowers are all edible!
Practice common sense and caution when foraging for Miner’s lettuce. For example, plants growing alongside a busy road or adjacent to a commercial farm or golf course may be tainted with pesticides or other contaminants. The best bet is to forage in natural areas away from frequent human activity, and be sure to rinse it well before consuming!
For the most crisp lettuce, harvest in the morning and avoid warm afternoons. After harvest, store fresh Miner’s lettuce in the refrigerator in a sealed container or bag for up to a week (though it’s best within a few days). Add a little splash of water or damp paper towel to maintain maximum freshness. Be gentle as the leaves tend to bruise easily.
The Best Ways to Eat Miner’s Lettuce
Enjoy and eat Miner’s lettuce like you would any other tender leafy greens or sprouts. The mild, sweet flavor allows it to blend right in with a variety of dishes without being overpowering, similar to spinach. It offers the best texture when used raw and fresh, such as added to salads (including mixed green salads, rice or pasta salads), on sandwiches, atop ‘Buddha bowls’, or used as a garnish.
Claytonia is also great for cooking. Try incorporating it into stir fries, soups, pasta dishes and more. You can also juice the fresh leaves, add them to smoothies, or use them in pesto – which is a great way to use up a lot at once! Even more, you can freeze the pesto, doubling as a way to preserve an especially large harvest. Try our Besto Pesto recipe here. While the recipe calls for traditional basil, we often add or use other greens like arugula, kale, leek greens, fava bean leaves – or claytonia!
Now you know how to identify, grow and harvest Claytonia!
Are you ready to get out there and forage for Claytonia yourself? I mean, who can say no to free food – especially when it’s this tasty and nutritious? Even if you don’t live in the wild west, don’t let that stop you from trying this unique green. I hope you learned something new today! If you found this information to be useful, please spread the wild food love by pinning or sharing this article. Happy foraging!
You may also dig:
- How to Make Homemade Stinging Nettle Fertilizer
- Seed Starting 101: How to Sow Seeds Indoors
- 7 Ways to Protect Plants from Frost
- When to Start Seeds: Garden Planting Calendars for Every Zone
- 13 Fast-Growing Vegetable Crops for the Fall Garden